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Malaysia government reclaims capital streets, PM asserts command

Malaysia's government, with Prime Minister Najib Razak presiding, reclaimed the streets of the capital Monday after massive weekend protests demanding the premier's ouster, staging its own show of force with National Day celebrations attended by thousands.

world Updated: Aug 31, 2015 12:31 IST
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) gestures as his deputy, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (L), looks on before the start of National Day celebrations at Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur on August 31, 2015. (AFP Photo)
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) gestures as his deputy, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (L), looks on before the start of National Day celebrations at Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur on August 31, 2015. (AFP Photo)

Malaysia's government, with Prime Minister Najib Razak presiding, reclaimed the streets of the capital Monday after massive weekend protests demanding the premier's ouster, staging its own show of force with National Day celebrations attended by thousands.

Masses of flag-waving spectators cheered a colourful parade of soldiers, police and civil servants through the city centre, symbolically underlining the government's clout despite pressure for change.

Organisers of the peaceful weekend demonstrations said more than 200,000 people came out to demand the embattled Najib's removal over a financial scandal.

"Well, we gave it our best shot and now it's their turn again," said Simon Tam, a lawyer who attended the demonstrations on both days.

"Getting Najib to step down is not easy, and maybe there is not much hope at all. But can we stand by and say nothing?"

Najib has been under pressure since the Wall Street Journal last month published Malaysian documents showing nearly $700 million had been deposited into his personal bank accounts, beginning in 2013.

His cabinet ministers now admit the transfers happened, describing them as "political donations" from unidentified Middle Eastern sources but refusing to explain further.

Influential ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad, who calls Najib corrupt and a poor leader and has pressed for his ouster for more than a year, caused a stir by attending the rally on Sunday.

The 90-year-old, who squelched civil disobedience during his 1981-2003 rule, evoked the 1986 Philippine "people power" revolt in calling for Najib to be toppled.

"If the government ignores the law, we have to demonstrate. If you look at (former president Ferdinand) Marcos, when he was ruling the Philippines they had to overthrow him through demonstrations," he said.

But the chances of a "people power" revolt in Malaysia are remote.

Najib can 'rest easy'

Najib retains firm control of the powerful ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and its coalition government enjoys solid support among the Muslim ethnic Malays who make up more than 60 percent of the population.

"Najib can rest easy because the only way anyone could remove him is through parliament or the ruling party," said Ibrahim Suffian, head of leading Malaysian polling firm Merdeka Centre.

Najib has already faced months of allegations that hundreds of millions of dollars disappeared from deals involving a state-owned company, and Mahathir, who remains active in UMNO, accused the premier of using them as party bribes to secure political support.

But Najib, who firmly denies any wrongdoing, on Sunday refused to step down, calling the protesters "shallow-minded".

The prime minister recently strengthened his position by purging critics in his cabinet and appears to have stalled investigations into the scandal through other personnel moves.

UMNO has controlled multi-racial Malaysia through coalition governments since independence in 1957, but support is sliding over persistent corruption, civil liberties curbs and controversial policies favouring Malays.

Najib had vowed earlier to end corruption, expand freedoms and reform the pro-Malay policies, but abandoned those initiatives under pressure from UMNO conservatives after a 2013 election setback.

Participants in Monday's rally in Kuala Lumpur were overwhelmingly from the ethnic Chinese who make up about a quarter of the population, suggesting the demonstrations had limited Malay support.

A Merdeka Centre survey released Friday showed 81 percent of Chinese supported the rally, while just 23 percent of Malays did.

Government Minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan trumpeted the government's grip on the Malay grassroots in deriding the demonstrations.

"When will these people realise that the real battle is at (the) grassroots, which is (the ruling coalition's) forte?" he said in a tweet Sunday.

UMNO's Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition also holds a near-impregnable electoral advantage thanks to decades of gerrymandering that has awarded more parliamentary seats to its rural Malay strongholds, say critics.

The Electoral Integrity Project, a study of 127 countries by Harvard University and the University of Sydney, said this year Malaysia ranked 114th for election fairness and had the worst electoral laws and district boundaries of the nations surveyed.